NCAA Tournament 2022: Saturday's Elite Eight Winners and LosersMarch 27, 2022
NCAA Tournament 2022: Saturday's Elite Eight Winners and Losers
Two games down, two more to go. We're halfway through the Elite Eight.
The first three rounds of the tournament were marked by chaos. But if Saturday's matchups are any indication, the cream might finally be rising to the top.
Though Villanova vs. Houston and Duke vs. Arkansas were markedly different games in terms of style and tempo, the victors of both matchups deserve their spots in the Final Four based on their performances Saturday night, moving on through a combination of top-tier execution, toughness and coaching.
Here we've got a quick analysis and recap of Saturday's games and the winners and losers of the Elite Eight.
The first game of the evening featured Villanova and Houston, two teams with top-10 offenses and top-25 defenses, per KenPom. On paper, you might expect these efficient, well-coached clubs to play a crisp, telegenic affair, but the Wildcats' slow-paced offense (65.8 possessions per game, 342nd nationwide) and the Cougars' excellence at point prevention (59.0 opponent PPG, third nationwide) suggested something different.
And, well, something different is what we got.
Defense reigned supreme in San Antonio, to a perhaps unwatchable degree. Neither school made even 30 percent of its shots from the field (29.8 percent for Houston, 28.8 percent for Villanova), and they committed a combined 26 fouls. Neither team was even particularly prolific from a defensive playmaking standpoint either; it was just an intense and physical fight to the end, with Jay Wright's club surviving and advancing.
On the other side, Duke vs. Arkansas wasn't nearly the same brick party as its earlier counterpart, but the Blue Devils rose to the occasion, limiting a Razorbacks team that averaged 76.1 points per game to just 69 points and out-rebounding them by a 34-25 margin.
Neither of those differences may seem major, but considering this Duke squad is much more vaunted for its offense than its defense, clear victories in such major facets of the game are a good sign for this group's title chances.
Loser: Houston's Late-Game Scoring
As just mentioned, Houston entered Saturday with the eighth-ranked offense nationwide, per KenPom. The Cougars shot 54.9 percent inside the arc and had recorded seven of their 15 most efficient shooting performances in the last two months. Suffice it to say that Kelvin Sampson's crew was hitting its stride at the right time.
Of course, none of that matters if you can't execute under the bright March lights, and with a second consecutive Final Four trip on the line, Houston failed to do just that. Never the most proficient three-point shooting team (34.5 percent for the season), the Cougars made just one trey on Saturday and scored just six points in the final six minutes of the game, including four missed threes in the last 25 seconds.
After quickly crawling out of an 11-point deficit midway through the second half and closing the gap to just two with 5:28 left in the game, it had to hurt for Houston's offense to just go completely AWOL when it did. But for a program that went a long time with no impact on the national stage (one tournament appearance between 1992 and 2018), three straight deep postseason runs is worth celebrating.
Winner: Duke's Balanced Offense
Throughout this season, Duke's clear strength has been its offense.
Mike Krzyzewski's squad ranked eighth nationwide in points per game (thanks to six players averaging at least 8.0 PPG), fourth nationwide in field-goal efficiency and second in KenPom's offensive rankings.
Of course, Duke frequently has an immense amount of offensive talent, so the perennial struggle for Coach K in the one-and-done age has been translating that on-paper ability into postseason success. And with five of his top six players this year either freshmen or sophomores, that success was by no means a guarantee, particularly against an Arkansas team that prides itself on tenacious defense.
Well, at least in the Elite Eight, we can now say all that worrying was foolish. Duke came out of the gate in control on Saturday and rarely, if ever, looked bothered on offense. Those top six players all scored at least nine points. The team as a whole shot 54.7 percent from the field (and 40.0 percent from three). And the Blue Devils baited the physical Razorbacks into giving them 18 free-throw attempts, of which Duke made 16. Paolo Banchero's 4-of-11 efficiency aside, it was a nearly flawless showing from a relatively inexperienced group.
All that being said, this positive momentum truly hangs in the balance when the late game tips off on Sunday evening. The first ever NCAA tournament matchup between Duke and North Carolina is on the verge of occurring (a matchup that would be sweet poetry for Coach K's final season), and it's possible this would be one of the most watched games in the history of March Madness.
No pressure, Dukies!
Loser: Arkansas, Falling Short of the Final Four Again
Prior to Eric Musselman's arrival in Fayetteville, the Arkansas basketball program had been stuck in mediocrity ever since Nolan Richardson's 40 Minutes of Hell era. However, the energetic and charismatic new guy quickly got up to speed, joining Arkansas for the truncated 2019-20 season and leading the Razorbacks to the Elite Eight last year for the first time since 1995 before losing to eventual national champion Baylor.
Things weren't so straightforward after that run, though, as star Moses Moody departed for the NBA and two other starters graduated. It was very much in question whether or not the 2021 showing was a miracle or the start of something sustainable.
Of course, given the fact that I'm writing this and you're reading it at this particular moment of the tournament, it's safe to say Musselman and his players found a way to build on last season's success, even without a pro-ready talent like Moody on the roster. The reason they're being designated "losers" here is just because of the simple fact that going out in the exact same round as last year, so close to the eternal glory that a Final Four berth and banner can bestow, must burn deeply.
This offseason may be an even costlier one for Arkansas' roster, as five of the team's current rotation players are seniors. But with two top-10 recruits joining the team in Nick Smith and Jordan Walsh and Musselman now boasting five tournament appearances since first becoming a collegiate head coach in 2015, it's very possible we'll see them back here next year, this time celebrating a national semifinal berth instead of wondering what went wrong.
Winner: Blue Bloods
We're halfway toward a darkly, karmically humorous Final Four.
This has inarguably been one of the most chaotic NCAA tournaments on record. Four double-digit seeds made the Sweet Sixteen, and two made the Elite Eight. Only one top seed remains. John Calipari lost in the first round. Yet if Sunday's two favorites win, the Final Four will consist of Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Villanova. One of the most patrician national semifinals we've seen in a long time.
If this grouping were to occur, it would prove that we're in a halcyon era of coaching in college basketball. These four schools have won nine of the 21 national championships awarded this century, and three of them claim long-tenured coaches in Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self and Jay Wright. And aside from Duke, none of these schools have surefire NBA talents, suggesting that Krzyzewski, Self and Wright's decades of experience (and Hubert Davis' years of learning from Roy Williams before him) truly do matter in building championship-level contenders at this stage.
Of course, Sunday's games haven't happened yet. If Saint Peter's beats UNC or Miami beats Kansas, this idea might look silly. But it will remain true. Talent might get a team most of the way to a title, but great coaching guides them through the most difficult trials on that path.